Texas Democrats had good reason to celebrate Tuesday night.
Coming off very strong early voting numbers in the state’s 15 largest counties, Democratic voters doubled their statewide 2014 primary turnout, topping the million mark for the first time since 2002.
But Wednesday morning was also sobering as Democrats faced hard realities of how far they have to go to be competitive in a state where Republicans have had a lock on statewide office for more than two decades and where 1.5 million Republican voters turned out for their primary, dwarfing their own previous record, and puncturing the latest spate of national hype and hoopla that attends any evidence that Texas might be turning, blue, purple or a slightly less crimson shade of red.
“The jump from the excitement over the early vote numbers to the reality that there were still more Republican primary voters than Democratic primary voters is just another reminder of the overwhelming advantage that Republicans maintain in Texas,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
It wasn’t the only unsettling aspect of Tuesday’s results for Democrats.
Democratic voters selected two little-known and lightly funded candidates for governor — former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, with 42.9 percent, and Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White, with 27.4 percent — to face off in a May runoff, and Valdez, the front-runner, didn’t really seem to seize the moment.
And U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, the great Texas Democratic hope of his generation, running for U.S. Senate, demonstrated just how many primary-voting Democrats still hadn’t the slightest idea who he was. He lost a slew of counties mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, the Panhandle and East Texas to two unknown candidates — Sema Hernandez and Edward Kimbrough — who, respectively, won 23.7 and 14.5 percent of the vote, to O’Rourke’s 61.8 percent, without even trying.
Even in the immediate euphoria of election night, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa’s statement in the wee hours of Wednesday morning was tempered.
“It’s clear Texas Democrats are fired up, exceeding expectations, and charging forward to November,” he said. “After tonight, win or lose, we will need your support in the upcoming months. If everyone that showed up to vote during the primary brings one or two friends in November, we can win this.”
An early exit
At the Dallasite, a neighborhood bar where the Dallas County Democratic Party held its election night event, state District Judge John Creuzot, who had just secured the Democratic nomination for district attorney, on seeing Valdez, announced to the crowd, in a quizzical tone, the arrival of “our maybe, soon-to-be governor.”
Valdez, beaming, gave brief remarks in front of a bank of TV cameras — it was clear on TV that she was chewing gum for her closeup — and surrendered the mic.
She then spoke briefly with an American-Statesman reporter, shook the hands of a couple of people shooting pool and left.
Asked about the whereabouts of her campaign manager, Bill Romjue, a veteran operative who most recently worked on Doug Jones’ successful U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama and who started with Valdez’s campaign two weeks ago, Valdez said he had taken the night off to go to dinner with his wife.
Romjue’s wife isn’t generally in town, Valdez explained.
“It’s election night. You’re the campaign manager. That’s part of the job description,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who had watched on a Houston TV station Tuesday night as a reporter, doing a stand-up from the Dallasite, explained that Valdez had already departed, saying she was tired and going to bed.
“She has $57,000 (in campaign money) in the bank, and she is sufficiently confident or unmotivated that she can’t stay at her campaign event for an extra hour to get statewide media coverage worth literally millions of dollars,” Jones said.
That has not been O’Rourke’s problem. For a year he has crisscrossed the state tirelessly, visiting 226 of the state’s 254 counties and livestreaming all the way, drawing consistently big crowds and positive notices.
And yet, for all that the effort, and all the fanfare about his candidacy in elite media and political circles, a sizable chunk of Democratic primary voters apparently didn’t know who he was.
“In terms of some of the communities I didn’t win in the primary I certainly want to and will be spending more time there,” O’Rourke told the Statesman on Wednesday.
“I would say almost no one in Texas knew who I was when we started a year ago. It’s just going to take some time,” O’Rourke said. “We had essentially a year ago begun a general election strategy – going to every county, even if there isn’t a Democrat in the place to make sure I can listen and learn from those folks. If our focus was running up the score in a Democratic primary, you would have probably seen me in different parts of the state.”
“I think the most encouraging thing about yesterday was just the level of turnout,” O’Rourke said. “I think it reflects the energy and the intensity and the excitement that you are seeing in the state.”
And, even before the polls closed Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who O’Rourke will face in the fall, tweeted a new ad, a country ditty suggesting that if, “You’re gonna run in Texas, you can’t be a liberal man.” It includes the lyric, “Liberal Robert wanted to fit in. So he changed his name to Beto. And he did it with a grin.”
“I was also encouraged by that,” O’Rourke said. “I think if your opening salvo is to make fun of my first name then, you know, I’ll take that.”